commentary

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

September 20, 2006

Preschool Pays Off

by Dana Schultz

Early childhood education produces better students, more productive adults

Sixty-two percent of children under the age of 6 in Pennsylvania need care while their parents or guardians work. Meeting this need presents an opportunity to enrich the lives of children and set them on a path toward productive adulthood. Research shows that investments in quality child care pay off.

In the near term, quality preschool can boost children's ability to learn and succeed in school. In the longer term, the benefits can translate into substantial savings for government, taxpayers and businesses.

Studies have shown what effective early childhood programs look like. They resemble schools more than day care. They have well-trained and educated providers, small group sizes and a developmentally appropriate curriculum.

Pennsylvania has begun to recognize the need for such early childhood care programs. State efforts like the $6 million investment in Keystone Stars are designed to improve child care quality. Pennsylvania legislators also are poised to pass standards for preschool programs that would require all teachers to have a bachelor's degree and a certificate in early childhood education.

These requirements have a solid basis in research. Studies have found that students with quality preschool experience are more likely to enter school prepared to learn and to possess basic skills. These students consistently outperform their peers who lack similar preparation. This divergence is especially sharp for students in the lowest income groups.

There are further benefits. Students who enter kindergarten from quality preschool programs are less likely to repeat grades, less likely to require remedial or special education and less likely to pose disciplinary problems. And the benefits persist. The same students are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to pursue advanced education.

These benefits do not come cheap. Quality preschool programs require a big investment. Care providers require training and certification; standards must be developed and enforced. However, analysis has shown that investments in early childhood education can ultimately save money. The government and, by extension, taxpayers and businesses, stand to benefit.

An analysis by RAND Corp. has found that savings range from $1.25 to $17 for each $1 spent on early childhood education, depending on the type of program. Within school systems, the savings come from having children who are ready to learn. Remedial schooling, special education and repeated grades all drain needed resources.

School districts in Pennsylvania have recently implemented quality early education programs to their advantage. Schools have used Head Start Supplemental and Accountability Block Grants to expand the availability of pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs. The result has been a marked increase in pre-kindergarten enrollment, an increase in full-day kindergarten enrollment and a decrease in the number of students repeating kindergarten.

Outside of the education system, there are savings, as well. Studies that have tracked students from preschool programs into adulthood show that early childhood education continues to pay off. Reduced dropout rates and increased college entry rates result in more young adults who are ready to enter the workforce. They get better and higher-paying jobs because they are better educated. More young adults in the work force translates into less need for welfare assistance and programs.

The criminal justice system also benefits. Children whose impoverished environments place them most at risk of involvement in crime are also the most likely to experience lasting benefits from quality preschool programs. Each healthy, productive citizen is one less burden for police and court caseloads. Taxpayers thus benefit doubly -- instead of draining state resources, working adults pay into tax coffers and contribute to the economy.

Early childhood education also makes economic sense for businesses, which need good employees with the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. In Pittsburgh, PNC Bank launched a 10-year, $100 million initiative called "Grow Up Great" that focuses on advocacy, education, grants, volunteers and public awareness around early childhood education. Early indications from some of the Head Start programs funded by Grow Up Great show improvements in math and science skills.

The cumulative benefits of early childhood education are hard to ignore. If we do ignore them, we risk limiting children's futures and paying the price as a society down the road.


Dana Schultz is a social policy analyst in the Pittsburgh office of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 20, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.